What is Revolution? [Rx’]

We have a special guest post today from political writer Nathan Coombs. In light of the ongoing revolts in the Arab world, sustained theoretical reflection on the meaning of ‘revolution’ is important – particularly for recognizing whether the established order (i.e. a US-dominated Egpyt) will remain despite the efforts of the Egyptian people.

Another political writer, Alex Andrews, has started a new blog as well, providing sharp and astute criticisms of the British political system. Well worth checking out here.

What is Revolution? [Rx]

By Nathan Coombs[1]

The following is an adapted section of my PhD thesis. Since it is unlikely to make it into the final draft, and as there have recently been a series of online debates as to according to what criteria we can term the uprisings in North Africa as revolutions, I release it now in the hope that it will serve to advance theoretical clarity on the issue – or at least provoke further reflection. A PDF of the essay can be found here.

What is revolution? Such a simple question, but one that unleashes a manifold of entangled theoretical considerations. It is not adequate to seek to determine the nature of this nomination solely through its invariant characteristics like masses on the streets, governments falling, and new leaders rising to power. All these are ultimately too ambiguous to serve as anything more than the loosest schematic, which then falls apart when active subjectivity enters the theoretical scene. For a Marxist, if the bourgeoisie remain in power this negates any procedural semblance of a revolution. For a liberal democrat, the survival of cliques from the old nomenclature deflates the democratic revolution. Whichever way it is examined, on closer inspection there is not a single set of characteristics that will serve to unite all around a common conception. On the other hand, neither is it satisfying to sophistically divide up revolution to fit individual preferences – a ‘you have your revolution, and I’ll have mine’ approach.  What is needed rather is an investigation into the conditions for nominating a political event as a revolution; resources for which I believe can be found in Alain Badiou’s philosophy with his introduction of the term ‘event’ into the theoretical toolbox. The following discussion thus considers the relationship between ‘event’ and ‘revolution’ within Badiou’s philosophy, and further extrapolates upon this theme in order that, by way of a theoretical parabola, the question of the meaning of revolution today might be brought into sharper focus.

Alain Badiou and ex-UCFML comrade, Sylvain Lazarus, consider ‘revolution’ an exhausted term in the context of the contemporary political impasse. Yet since Badiou has marked a number of revolutions as key examples of events (the French revolution, the Chinese cultural revolution, etc.), this has led to a conflation of ‘revolution’ with ‘event’ in some readings of his philosophy. Most seriously, this confusion resulted in Toula Nicolapoulos and George Vassilacopolous charging Badiou with infidelity to the retreat of the political event[2] – by which they mean Badiou romanticises the event in bad faith, knowing full well the implications of the end of the global, revolutionary movement in the late 1970s. To untangle this claim one needs to be attentive to the fact that as tempting as it might be to draw a one-to-one correspondence between the term ‘revolution’ and ‘event’, even if what is and is not a revolution is defined according to criteria in line with Badiou’s idea of the event they still do not match precisely. It is therefore worth clarifying this relationship in more depth.

We firstly have to differentiate our concept of revolution from its use in the academic typologies produced by the likes of Samuel Huntington and Theda Skocpol.[3] Revolution cannot be defined in a manner consistent with positivist, social science. The notion is contradictory; we would have to accept the idea of a static social world that can be measured, tested and predictions made; whereas, our first axiom regarding revolutions is that they cannot be fully predicted: they introduce novelty that reconfigures the sense of what is possible. Like in Badiou’s discussion of the event, despite all the associations we might have with revolution – say in the French case the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, and so on – these terms cannot define ‘revolution’ in its entirety, for if they were to occur again (with no new element added) they would not compose revolution, but just repetition (or a sanitised historical recreation). But at the same time, we need to insist on keeping event and revolution as separate terms, despite the similar way in which they are conceived. The term ‘event’ operates as an idea, whereas a revolution, on the other hand, is the name given to a concrete set of factual occurrences. In the case of the Russian revolution, for instance, the rupture of the revolution arguably spans from February 1917 to the end of the Civil War in 1921. One should not consider this period itself as a single event, though, even if we could consider it as one revolution. Different subjectivities have always named events at different sites in this sequence: the February revolution (which all can affirm, except the extreme reactive figure of the recalcitrant monarchist), the Bolshevik October seizure of power (the political Fall according to liberals), the dissolution of the Soviets (for left-communists the Bolshevik’s first counter revolutionary action), or the extinguishing of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921 (for anarchists the moment demonstrating the necessity of resistance to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and transitional socialism). The splits issuing from the events within the revolution led to the events’ promulgation through the loyalties of sects to the opening up and closing down of possibilities within the revolution.

Thus, in rendering the possibility for splits like these into formal language, we want to make the distinction that a revolution has to be both a revolution (a term of itself, much the same as how Badiou constructs the matheme of the event) and also must contain at least one event thought separately from the revolution itself. We can propose an extremely simple matheme for revolution along these lines:

Rx’ = {Rx, ex}

ex = {x ∈ X, ex}

Here an invariant R (revolution thought as a loosely determined ahistorical invariant) is coupled with an event, ex, in turn composed by Badiou’s matheme shown underneath. But what determines this invariant R? There is no other recourse than to conjecture that the invariant of revolution is only an iteration of other revolutions: the sequence that gives sense to its terms. So the invariant R of the Russian revolution is determined insofar as it repeats certain traits of earlier revolutions such as, for instance, the French revolution, which in turn repeats historical revolutions preceding it.

For subjects within the event horizon of the 20th century’s revolutionary sequence a revolution, Rx’, however, has to be both a revolution and contain an event – our first axiom, should you choose to adopt it. In contrast, for non-subjects viz. this horizon, revolution contains only the evental site, X, and the term ‘revolution’ simply describes this historical repetition of the accumulated traits observed in revolutions past. Consequently, in this conception of revolution we have no novelty, signified by ex, to be affirmed by a subject. Whereas revolution for subjects within the event horizon of the 20th century’s revolutionary sequence is denoted as Rx’ to emphasise the novelty introduced through the event (using the symbolism of derived sets impressionistically), for non-subjects (positivist social scientists, say) Rx denotes that revolution only need couple the invariant of revolution with a specific site:

Rx = { (∑ Ry, Rz …), X }

Or to render into plain English: for a non-subject, a specific revolution, Rx, is solely the sum of what is known of revolutions past framed alongside the evental site X. This expresses particularly well non-subjects’ inability to perceive anything more than contingent spatial and temporal variants in each revolution, and also the positivist, social science methodology, which conceives revolution by cumulatively adding the features of each past revolution to just modify the definition and concept. It gives no indication of what classes a revolution as a revolution other than it bearing similarities to past revolutions, resulting in an ever-wider array of definitions by which ‘revolutions’ may fit the criteria of equivalence. Theda Skocpol faced this problem in the late 1970s, when she was forced to invent new categories to divide the term (political vs. social revolutions) in order to police its growing ubiquitousness. It never occurred to her that it could be her subject position as expressed through social science discourse that necessitated splitting the set as it grew ever larger. And still, by trying to neutralise revolution within the sociological framework, the proliferation Skocpol sought to curtail continued unabated as “researchers sought to apply the structural theory of revolution to an increasingly diverse set of cases,” with the result that: “Two recent surveys of revolution… list literally hundreds of events as “revolutionary” in character.”[4]And adding an ideological twist to boot: “whereas the “great revolutions” had all led fairly directly to populist dictatorship and civil wars, a number of the more recent revolutions – including that of the Philippines, the revolutionary struggle in South Africa, and several of the anticommunist revolutions of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – seemed to offer a new model in which the revolutionary collapse of the old regime was coupled with a relatively non-violent transition to democracy.”[5] That is, of course, because all the above-mentioned ‘revolutions’ were not revolutions (Rx’) from the perspective of a subject to the 20th century’s revolutionary sequence.

What does this theoretical detour on ‘revolution’ reveal? It demonstrates that if revolution is perceived to have reached an end, we need to take that not literally to mean that there are no longer any revolutions, as in the invariant phenomena of a popular uprising that topples a government. It is rather that once revolutions no longer take place within the sequence of Marxism, or in the context of any new sequence, the term collapses to its non-subjective definien. As Lazarus concludes: “Revolution… belongs as a category to the historicism that is fuelled by both defunct socialism and parliamentarianism,” because, “historicism keeps a place for the word “revolution” – in post-socialist parliamentarianism following the fall of the Berlin Wall.”[6] We are now in a position to understand the relation of ‘Marxism’ to ‘revolution’ to ‘event’. If Marxism is the sequence which creates an event horizon dividing subjects and non-subjects across the 20th century, it is only from inside that event horizon that we can talk of a ‘last revolution’ – as Badiou, a Maoist, considers the Cultural revolution. No matter how much his ontology might be in contradiction to Marxist dialectics, it remains the case that only as part of the Marxist sequence can he declare the end of revolution; and, indeed, only as part of that sequence does his theory of the event make any sense. Take away revolution, and all your are left with is the Idea of the event: Rx’ = {R, ex} Thus we have to repudiate Nicolapoulos and Vassilacopolous’ charge of Badiou’s infidelity to the retreat of the revolutionary event; on the contrary, on the event horizon of the Marxist sequence, Badiou’s theory of the event can only make sense within the context of the retreat of that revolutionary sequence. Only with the continuation of the invariant R in the absence of the creative ruptures of events does the event idea become subtracted from revolution to an extent that it can be seen as theoretically discreet. As Badiou describes revolution: “the word itself lies at the heart of the saturation.”[7] His response to the recent uprisings across North Africa provides further confirmation of this. Badiou considers them symptoms of the present “intervallic period”: succeeding the period where revolutionary logic and an idea for transformation were united (in 20th century Marxism presumably). “[A]n intervallic period [is] where the revolutionary idea has not been passed on to anyone, and in which it hasn’t yet been taken up, a new alternative disposition has not yet been built… discontent exists but it has no structures, it can only draw power from a shared idea. Its power is essentially negative (“make it go away”). This is why the form of mass collective action in an intervallic period is the riot.” [8] Riot, note, not revolution.

Two notions of revolution have therefore been identified: a non-subjective, positivist idea (Rx), and a subjective idea (Rx’). Whether we are to consider revolutions according to this theoretic typology depends upon the extent to which we subjectivate ourselves to affirming the conditions of a revolutionary event as it was taken in the 20th century – one that demanded not simply repetition of the form of the invariant R, but the experimentation and drive for novelty in reordering society indicative of those great politico-philisophico-aesthetico ruptures of the last century.

[1] Nathan Coombs is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of London. His research project is provisionally entitled ‘The Event: a speculative genealogy’. He is co-editor of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies. His first book, ‘The British Ideology’, is forthcoming 2011 for Zer0 Books.

[2] Toula Nicolapoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, “Philosophy and Revolution: Badiou’s Infidelity to the Event,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy Vol. 2, No. 2 (2006)

[3] For a comprehensive study of mainstream social science ‘revolutionary theory’ see Jack A. Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science 4, (2001), 139-187.

[4] ibid., 142

[5] ibid., 141

[6] Sylvain Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party” in Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, eds. Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 262-263.

[7] Alain Badiou, “The Cultural Revolution: The Last Revolution?” Positions 13:3 (Duke University Press, 2005), 483.

[8] Alain Badiou, “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”, wrong+arithmetic (2 Feb 2011) http://wrongarithmetic.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/alain-badiou-on-tunisia-riots-revolution/ (Accessed 3 Feb 2011)


2 thoughts on “What is Revolution? [Rx’]

  1. Ignoring the entire content of the article for a moment, all of which I am sure is very interesting, do you have a fully-scanned version of that issue of ЛЕФ that you posted up there?

  2. I’m impressed by this work. I only skimmed it, and I need to go over some things, but I think you do a good job of discussing how historical phenomenon can operate “within” the innovation of the event.


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